As the number of people around the globe affected by the novel coronavirus and being diagnosed with COVID-19 continues to skyrocket, so too do our questions about the disease. Pet owners, in particular, are wondering if their family's fur babies are susceptible to the illness—especially because scientists say the virus initially jumped from animals to humans.
Here's what we know so far:
Can Pets Get COVID-19?
The Guardian reported that a Pomeranian in Hong Kong tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 last week. The dog's owner had tested positive for COVID-19, but the dog itself wasn't showing symptoms, according to authorities with the Hong Kong Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department. Test results suggested the dog, which has been quarantined since February 26, had "a low-level of infection, and it is likely to be a case of human-to-animal transmission."
In a press release, the department noted that they "will continue to closely monitor the dog which tested weak positive for COVID-19 virus and repeat the test later. It will only be returned to its owner when the test result is negative."
Vanessa Barrs, who studies diseases in pets at City University of Hong Kong’s Jockey Club College of Veterinary Medicine and Life Sciences, explains to Parents.com, "The results of all of the tests show that the dog has a mild infection, acquired from its owner. The dog is not sick. The tests show that the virus is replicating inside of the dog's body, but it is not very good at it, and consequently it is only shedding small amounts of virus in its nose and mouth."
To catch COVID-19, you have to be exposed to a certain dose of the virus, she notes. But the dog is shedding just a tiny amount of it, which means it is unlikely to be contagious. Barrs says that when a virus doesn't replicate very well in an animal—as is the case here—no onward transmission occurs.
J. Scott Weese, a professor at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College who studies zoonotic disease (disease spread between animals and people), tells Parents.com that researchers are hoping the novel coronavirus behaves like human flu in pets. "We can occasionally pass human flu to dogs," notes Weese. "They can get sick, but it's not their flu virus, so we assume they are 'dead end' hosts, meaning they don’t pass it on any further. Hopefully that’s the case with this virus in dogs. Cats are a bit more of a concern, because they are probably a more amenable host, but we need to learn more about that."
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Can Cats and Dogs Transmit Coronavirus to Humans?
Simple answer: No. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that there is no reason to think that any animals, including pets in the U.S., might be a source of infection with this new coronavirus. To date, they haven't received any reports of pets or other animals becoming sick with COVID-19, noting that "at this time, there is no evidence that companion animals including pets can spread COVID-19."
Meanwhile, a report from the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) echoed that there is no evidence that dogs can spread the disease or that the disease can cause an animal to fall ill, but further studies may bring new findings. And the Society for the Protection of Animals in Hong Kong has clarified that being infected was not the same as being infectious.
In other words, pets can contract the virus, but there's no evidence that they can transmit it to humans.
Barrs told The South China Morning Post that dogs and cats also contracted low-level infections of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) during the 2003 outbreak. "Previous experience with SARS suggests that cats and dogs will not become sick or transmit the virus to humans," she said. "At that time, a small number of pets tested positive, but none became sick. Importantly, there was no evidence of viral transmission from pet dogs or cats to humans."
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The bottom line: People don't get COVID-19 from pets, and pets don't get sick or pass the virus on, says Barrs. "Humans get COVID-19 from humans; they do not get it from dogs," she says.
Precautions for Pet Owners
"For safety, people should avoid close contact with their pets if they are feeling sick, in case they might transmit COVID-19 to their pet," advises Barrs. "If you think you might have COVID-19, don't kiss, cuddle, or sleep with your pet during the period of your illness. You can take your dog for a walk, as long as you are taking normal safety precautions around other people, such as social distancing."
The CDC echoes this guidance, encouraging anyone who is sick to limit contact with their pet. Ideally another member of the household will step in, but if this is not possible, the CDC urges sick pet owners to wash their hands before and after they interact with pets, avoid sharing food, and to wear a face mask.
For more information regarding pet health and the pandemic, check back with the World Organization for Animal Health and the CDC, which will continue to provide updates as new information becomes available.